Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes met with reporters in his office Monday afternoon to discuss a number of topics. Obviously, top of the list was Pitt's decision to expand beer sales at Heinz Field, but we ended up talking about a number of different subjects. The transcript is below the jump and, as always with these things, it's long. All questions come from myself, Craig Meyer of the Post-Gazette, Jerry DiPaola of the Tribune-Review or Lance Lysowski of DKPittsburghSports.com. Away we go...
SCOTT BARNES: When you think about the momentum that's been created with coach Narduzzi, our ticket office and the Panther Nation. We're excited to announce some new ticket numbers. Many of you will recall that we had a goal, a loft goal, of setting all-time records for season tickets. To do that, two main cornerstones. One was to hit a 93 percent renewal rate, and right now we have hit and slightly exceeded that at 30,065 tickets that have been renewed. That's 93 percent.
The other component to this was to try and sell close to 10,000 new season tickets. Our actual goal — although we talked about 10,000 — our actual goal was 9,790. Currently, to date, we're at 10,389 for our new season-ticket count. When you add what we call comps — they're really paid for — the sponsorship, car dealers, other supporters who buy them, there's another 4,035 tickets there. The total there without student tickets thus far is 44,489. If you add current student tickets, we have currently sold 5,768 on student tickets. Keep in mind, our goal there is to sell 10,000. We've done that over the last four or five years. We think we'll exceed that number. We don't want to rest on our laurels, but we feel really confident in selling out of our season tickets for students at 10,000. Current total is 50,257. Obviously, once we sell the allotment of student tickets, we'll have set a new record.
Now, that's for season tickets. I also want to share with you our mini-plan progress because it's substantial. We had a goal for mini-plans — and that's a three-game pack, if you'll recall, that we sell — of 2,500 mini-plans. That would've been a 15 percent growth over last year. So far, to date, our mini-plan sales are 3,535, which is a 63 percent growth rate on the mini-plans. So in addition to the really exciting news on season tickets, our mini-plans are going beyond.
What I want to do is just at a very high-level walk through the handful of initiatives that have been created by our staff and the fan experience committee over the past year. The fan experience committee has been very involved in surveying our fan base, observing and ultimately coming up with these initiatives. Obviously the first initiative here, expanded alcohol sales at Heinz Field, is a big one. That's been talked about a little bit. The feedback from our fans, along with our fan experience committee, has moved us in this direction. Now, remember, we do sell, currently, beer at Heinz Field in the clubs and suites. This is expanded sale across the entire stadium. A couple of notes there and then we'll come back to this after we've hit all these initiatives because I'm sure you'll have questions. One of the things I wanted to mention is that along with the sale, we obviously are implementing the appropriate safety measures. We've spent a lot of time conversing with all sorts of folks on that front and ultimately a portion of the sales of these funds will go to significant increase our general student population alcohol and drug education.
The next one is a pre-game tailgate party. I just wanted to share with you that there's going to be a significant enhancement to the pre-game tailgate, both with live music, interactive games and a large video screen. New food menu and beverage menu, as well, in the Panther pre-game tailgate.
The third one is the Panther Pitt. Some of you may recall that we spent a lot of time last year working with our student leaders on communication regarding what's important to them, to the students in general coming to games. We've spent a lot of time on transportation, on pre-game events, on getting the students to the game and back safely. Oh by the way, giving them some food and drink along the way to help make that all come together. We felt like we took a good step last year in both getting them to the game and keeping them there after 'Sweet Caroline,' so we'll continue on that front. Some good progress.
The next one is single-game parking, self-explanatory. We can talk more about that. Then an improved Pitt gameday live app, and that's another enhancement in terms of notifications on traffic and weather and other items.
Last couple, Panther fan appreciation program. This is really in a way a sort of loyalty program for those fans that come on a regular basis and provide them with some reward points, various gift certificates and discounts on items.
Finally, the script Pitt gear will be maximized and we'll have all sorts of new lines of clothing as well as different types of Pitt script merchandise that is unique and hasn't been sold at Heinz Field in the past.
Those are the initiatives. I want to thank the fan experience committee for all the work that they put in. My staff, led by Chris Ferris and Chris Bain and others to bring these initiatives to fruition. With that, I'm happy to answer questions.
Q: How difficult was it to decide to expand alcohol sales and what kind of safety measures are you going to take?
SB: We spent a lot of time. In fact, I'll hearken back to maybe one of the first questions you ever asked me last spring at [the ACC spring meetings at] Amelia Island, will we sell beer. I said we'll look at everything. We spent the better part of this year analyzing it, vetting it with every conceivable group on campus in terms of the chancellor's leadership staff, student affairs, the police, campus police. Our fan base, obviously through the fan experience committee, provided feedback on wanting it. It is something that is becoming more the norm. Ohio State was the most recent one to add that as a peer institution.
We are the only program in America that shares an NFL facility that does not serve it to the general public, so we're an outlier, in that regard. We really like the fact that what we have in place at Heinz Field is exceptional in terms of security and the handling of this, because they do sell it at the [Steelers] games. What's really important to us is to continue and even improve the fan experience and the family fan experience, and we think we have all the measures in place to do that.
Q: Did you get any pushback on it?
SB: We really haven't received any pushback. I think we were very thoughtful in the research, led by Marcus Bowman, to present the case. As we talk to each of the chancellor's units about it, including student services, there was no pushback. There were questions, there was great collaboration and out of that feedback, some strengthening of our policies and how we would do it, but no pushback.
Q: Could you quantify increased revenue streams?
SB: We would take a shot at that. We're obviously not sure what it'll look like, but we think it'll be in the half-million plus range, annually.
Q: What sort of feedback have you gotten from other schools that allow beer sales?
SB: I'd even ask Marcus to chime in, too, because he did a lot of the legwork. They really served as a roadmap for us on some things to look at and watch and be careful of. I thought maybe there would be some more hesitancy — and everybody that's initiated it felt like it went very, very well, was well-received and not a lot of concerns.
MARCUS BOWMAN (Pitt senior associate athletic director): There were, before Ohio State, seven other Power Five schools that served it. I spoke to all of them on the phone, had extensive conversations with that. We also spoke to some non-Power Five schools as well: Cincinnati, Houston, San Diego State, SMU and South Florida. To Scott's point, just talked to them a little bit about their policies, what they've learned, any advice that they would give us. It was all positive feedback, in terms of a lot of conversations that we had.
Q: Could basketball make this move, too?
SB: Too early to tell. I will tell you that one of the measures we'll take is we'll evaluate this every Monday. From jump, form game one, every Monday we'll get together and we'll have a special meeting to look at this. If it goes well, then certainly we'll look at certainly expanding that. Right now, we just want to make sure that we have the right measures in place at Heinz Field, that we evaluate this on a weekly, game-by-game basis, make any adjustments that are needed throughout the season. We'll look at the whole picture at the end of the season.
Q: Will it be available to students?
SB: It will, but a couple of measures on that. One is beer sales will not be brought to them, so it won't be out in the seats. Two is we're limiting students to one per purchase. We're able to do that because the students that come into our venue have wristbands. So we'll use that wristband as an identifier and allowing only one per student.
Q: That also is only students that can afford to buy beers in the stadium.
SB: That, quite frankly, is something that we looked at. It's very important to use to make sure that environment's controlled. It's self-controlled, from that standpoint.
Q: Do you have price points for beer sales in the stadium yet?
SB: No. We don't. Not specifically. We've got to get our head around all that.
Q: Could sales be expanded at all?
SB: I think we're going to stay where we're at. I don't see us expanding that at all.
Marcus, any other measures student-wise that we've taken, in our exchange with student affairs and whatnot?
MARCUS BOWMAN: We'll have some increased security in that section, as another kind of layer. Students entering in, making sure if they're of age that they only have one in their hands. Another measure was at the recommendations of our partners at Heinz Field. We identified five stands around the student section that will only serve one drink per transaction, so even if a general fan goes to that specific stand, they'll only be allowed to purchase one. Those are kind of the additional layers.
Q: Was this an easier decision because you already had the infrastructure in place at Heinz Field?
SB: In all honesty, absolutely. When you think about the upstart cost — and we did some research on that — schools are spending three-quarters of a million dollars just to get in a position to be able to try to do it. Obviously not only the infrastructure's in place, but the safety measures, the experience of those involved all gave us a comfort level.
Q: What's the upside, other than revenue?
SB: That's a great question. I think — and again, we hear this from the fan experience committee — that fan experience, to come and being part of all the things we have today, the six or even initiatives. It's one of a series of initiatives that improves the fan experience. That's one. We certainly won't hide from the revenue. There's revenue there. We do believe, in the research we've done, there's a bit of a curbing — not that we've had a problem with it — binge drinking is typically curbed. We go south to our friends at West Virginia for a recent study that suggests alcohol incidents have lessened. ACC championship would be another one in football where actual incidents have been reduced by serving it in a controlled environment. I think we'll get people to the game earlier, I think we'll get people to stay longer.
That is another benefit. We've seen that in studies and anecdotal [evidence] from folks.
Q: Was fan experience something you targeted when you got the job?
SB: The fan experience generally? Yes, absolutely. It was probably a month and a half before I got here, right? We got on the phone and we created this initiative for the fan experience committee. By the time I got here, Chris and his group had already sort of laid the groundwork for what it might look like and then we tightened that up and launched it very, very soon. As I learned more about Pitt, it was one of the things that rose to the top.
Q: Could you tell us more about the lacrosse and soccer facility?
SB: We have a lot of shared facilities on campus. We sit at the table with intramural and rec, whatnot. This initiative isn't an athletic initiative. We aren't using it. It's a initiative for the students. I do want to say this: When you think about our peer institutions and where we sit as a general student body, we are really underperforming in terms of our ability to provide students with recreational facilities, general students. You could talk to the provost's office about this initiative, but it's not an athletic initiative at all. It's a general student-use initiative. I could see where some of the comments that were made might have confused that.
Q: How realistic is it to hope for a top ten percent finish in the Director's Cup with only 19 varsity sports?
SB: You're already handicapped because, as you know, they take 20 — 10 from men, 10 from women. Stanford, as an example, they've got 37 sports. They can pick any 10, any time, the 10 best. To your point, the first thing we have to do is we have to invest in what we have. We have got to make what we have the best we can make it. That's our plan. As we invest and get better at what we're doing, we will certainly look beyond that, but first step is to invest in what we have at an appropriate level, at an ACC level. We haven't done that. We're doing it, we're making progress, but we're not there yet.
Q: Are you open to adding more sports during this five-year plan or is that ruled out?
SB: It's not a front-burner item. I think that when you're always juggling the Title IX challenges with trying to get your current sports better. You've always got to be keeping an eye on the possibility of adding a sport, but it's not a front-burner item.
Q: This is speculative, but if you did add a sport, are there any that you're looking at?
SB: We'd look at a bunch, from crew to lacrosse to you name it, bowling, I don't know. We'd have to look at it. Again, this is a back-burner item, but what are you looking for? Participation numbers, right? Scholarship and participation numbers are sort of the things — in addition to trying to win championships — you want to, from a Title IX perspective, to keep an eye on. In some ways, the bigger the squad, the better.
Q: What about a track-and-field venue?
SB: Part of our master plan is to really do a deeper dive. We've already taken some steps in that regard, and tennis as well. Tennis and track are the two sports we have that compete in the ACC, but don't have home venues. We aren't going to be able to reach those aspirational goals, particularly in the Director's Cup and championships, if we don't ultimately get that done. This master plan will help us navigate and understand where, when and how.
Q: Have you talked about sites?
SB: We have discussed some possible sites in tennis, and we've actually got a hold on a site on campus for track that's still an availability for a potential indoor track. That's got to be further developed.
Q: Making the top 10 percent of the director's cup standings is a pretty lofty challenge. In your time here, what have you seen from Pitt that makes you think that's an attainable goal over the next five years?
SB: I think a few things. We've put some coaches in place, coupled with the ones here, so we've already improved ourselves dramatically with new coaches in men's soccer and swimming and diving and men's basketball and football, with Pat in his second year.
This plan is really all about facilitating our coaches' and student-athletes' success. The things we've put in place to do that...they've operated in many ways with resources that are much below what other ACC programs are operating with and with that, a different mindset, that not only are we providing the resources, but now we have to stretch ourselves to utilize those resources, have a different gameplan for recruiting, non-conference scheduling and attracting the best and the brightest. Those are all pieces that help facilitate success. We've changed some things around.
Not to get too far in the weeds, but our sports administration who oversaw sports were really very much event supervisors. We've pulled that out. Now, the event supervisor is the event supervisor and does facilities and events. The sports administrator that oversees that particular sport is now a strategic partner in helping that coach in how they recruit and what their needs are and putting a competitive gameplan together, literally a competition gameplan on how we're going to get there. These are things that we haven't had in place before that I think speak directly to improvement, academically and competitively.
Q: Where are you all on the facilities master plan?
SB: We just had our first meeting. We're going to create two committees. One is a steering committee. That will take us through the nine- or 10-month process. Much of it will be internal, but we've asked John Pelusi, who will be the incoming chair of our athletic committee on the board of trustees, to be on this committee as an outside entity. The other groups are focus groups. In the next few weeks, we'll have any number of these focus groups together to really launch this process. From there, what's really important to me is the inclusiveness of our coaches and staff because you have to have that to help shape the vision. We need that from day one and that's happening as we speak.
Q: Other than facilities, what other steps are necessary to get Olympic and non-revenue sports to the point where you think they can compete among that top 10 percent?
SB: We've done an extensive gap analysis against benchmarking against regional institutions, as well as the ACC as it relates to three things. One is salaries. When we lose an assistant coach, do we have enough to attract a really high-caliber, ACC-caliber assistant coach? Bolstering salaries across all of our positions...we have several unfunded positions. What I mean by that is an average ACC school may have 'X' number of trainers, sports media folks, strength coaches or what have you and we have a lot less. That analysis, we're filling that hole by adding more support staff to what we do.
Recruiting; we benchmark ourselves in terms of recruiting budget. That gets a little slippery because depending upon where you are, your needs are different, right? If you're in the middle of a huge recruiting area for swimming, you don't need to spend as much money. Taking that into consideration, there are some areas where we need to bolster recruiting and make sure our coaches are utilizing it.
Another example with recruiting is we're going to start sitting around the table and have recruiting summits, where Pat Narduzzi can talk to our new soccer coach and they can share ideas about how they recruit. One of the things that hasn't been done in this industry is there hasn't been a training program necessarily, where an assistant coach goes through a certification process on recruiting, other than exams for the NCAA. How do they learn it? They learn it from the seat of their pants. So let's bring the experts in. We have them among ourselves and we can also bring them in from the outside, to share how to recruit, how to be smart about it, how to make that connection, how to elevate ourselves in terms of recruiting. Those are examples of areas we're working on.
Q: Will recruiting budgets be increased for certain sports?
SB: Absolutely. They already have been.
Q: Including football?
SB: Yeah. We need to be more nimble in how we recruit. There needs to be an opportunity...as an example, in basketball, where a coach has the full week of practice, but he can go see somebody play. Well, private airline opportunities to get there and back is really important and in football, as well. Those things have been addressed and will continue to be bolstered as examples of increased recruiting.
As we hire new coaches who look beyond the region...and, in some cases, Europe. We'll be spending time in Europe and overseas as we hire coaches with an aggressive, next-level gameplan for recruiting. Those dollars are being put in place to fund that.
Q: Where do you think this athletic department stands right now compared to where it was this time last year, around when you took over?
SB: I hope we've done two things. We've created an excellent gameplan for success. Now, we have to execute. I think we've changed the culture or we've at least begun that. I mean it in this way – as I talk to my staff, what's important to me is empowerment, empowering my staff. We have an excellent staff. Through our organizational restructuring, which you're seeing, we have the right people on the right bus and they're sitting in the right seats. We spent all year on reorganization, so we can effectively deploy staff to our strategic plan. Those things are in place and we're really excited about that. With that, the attitude of empowerment, open communication, transparency...we're all rowing the boat in the same direction. Those are things that are really important to what happens next and the execution of that plan. We've knocked off any number of items this year we can talk about, some really good achievements. Those things are the most important."
Q: Why do you think Pitt athletics needed a culture change?
SB: I think we hadn't reached our potential. We still haven't. The need for that is because you become more effective. When you think about this diverse organization we have, everybody has an opportunity to contribute if you set it up right. We weren't set up right, but now, we're set up so we can listen to all the voices that are in the room and the expertise that's there.
Obviously, I have to make the final decision. There's a difference between having a say and having a vote. This isn't a democracy at the end of the day. Our staff, their insight, experience and skill. I think we're utilizing that better, much better. That comes through trust in what they're doing, assigning them the right opportunities, putting them in the right seat on the bus and then letting them do their thing. Obviously, we have a road map to follow and they help build that. Those are all contributing factors.
Q: Any word on basketball season ticket figures?
SB: Our goal is a 90 percent renewal rate. We have, it looks like, 1,800 new season tickets that will be available to sell. Some of those have already been sold. We're just right at the front end of that, so we don't really have any numbers. It has obviously slipped the last probably three years. It's not unlike a lot of programs. But we think we're going to start to turn the corner and build some of that back. We're reintroducing a mini-plan program for basketball, so that's another opportunity. We have to be a lot more nimble in terms of how we reach our customers in today's digital age and how many different ways they can watch a game or participate. The mini-plan and introducing some of these things will help that. It's a new day.
Q: Have there been any further discussions with Penn State in terms of football scheduling?
SB: There have been no further discussions. The last time we talked, it was about the mid [2020s]. We want to play Penn State in perpetuity. They weren't able to. At the time we were trying to renew those four games to get another four. So we worked with West Virginia and got those four and the last time Sandy [Barbour] and I talked, we were in agreement that we'd look at a placeholder for both of us to renew. We haven't consummated that yet. We need to continue to talk.
Q: Would that be beyond the middle of next decade?
SB: Right in there, right in the middle.
Q: Will you still be around then? As the AD?
SB: It's a long time. That brings up another point. I get a little nervous...with Penn State I'll do it because we play in perpetuity, but when you start scheduling with all the landscape and the changes, eight years out...what happens is you get there and you scratch your head and you start asking 'Why did we schedule that game?' It's different than it was eight years ago. I'm of the philosophy that depending on the situation, holding on a little bit isn't a bad thing always. You don't have to rush out and get a game 10 years from now, unless it's a Penn State. That's obviously one we would do.
Q: Is there anything as an AD you could see that could change the culture of these games being scheduled so far out?
SB: That's a really great question. You've got to watch the landscape. The FCS thing really continues to be one we have to watch. Is that going to be something we're going to continue to play? We've already talked about our commitment to try to play FBS games at home against Group of Five schools. The question we'll continue to monitor is whether FCS games still have a part in our long-term strategy. At the end of the day, it's about the fan experience and the resume for a playoff. If there are strong signals out there from the playoff committee that FCS games aren't the best use for your schedule, we'll look at that.
Q: Would that be a decision for the school or would it be up to the ACC?
SB: Both. We talk about it. Whether it would be a mandate is yet to be determined. You take your own path or, maybe at some point down the road, it would be a collective decision.
Q: Would you be in favor of not scheduling any more FCS games beyond the ones already scheduled?
SB:The minute I say that, we end up with Notre Dame and Clemson and Florida State all in the same year. You want balance. I would say this – depending upon what's available at the FBS level, those FCS games are readily available. They almost become life preservers. I would rather pursue the right FBS games down the line. That's not to say we wouldn't play FCS teams because you get caught in this situation where you need to fill a game or you need balance. Part of the resume for a playoff is not over-scheduling, too. You need just the right balance. Do we continue to play FCS games and on the other side, an FCS game continues to be a bowl eligible win. You've got to weigh those things.
Q: What do you think of this year's non-conference schedule?
SB: I think it's a really strong schedule. I think the fans have an exciting home schedule. It's a really good schedule. Ask me after we get through the non-conference and see what my answer is then.
Q: Do the head coaches like to have a seat at the table in terms of scheduling?
SB: Yeah. Typically, as an athletic director, you're very involved in the football schedule and you sort of own that because of the magnitude, there aren't very many games and the revenue. For basketball, I've always inserted myself and kept communication open, but I let the coaches do their schedule. Kevin [Stallings] wants to be aggressive and he just needs time to do it. Most of the other programs, we do give autonomy to them, within certain parameters. We give all the coaches autonomy. With the strategic plan, we're going to analyze RPIs, put a little more science into it and try to make it more effective in non-conference scheduling so we can hopefully bolster our opportunity for postseason bids.
Q: College athletic departments are making more money than ever, but they're also spending more than ever. Clemson, for example, has a mini golf course in their football facility. As a college administrator, do you ever get to the point where you feel some of this has gotten a little reckless and you maybe get a little timid and think this money could be put to better use?
SB: I think that's where you need to know who you are. We're not going to build mini-golf courses. That's just not who we are. You have to be competitive and you have to be able to attract the best student-athletes, but you have to be who you are. You've got to be grounded in that. There are some things we really need to do to enhance our facilities, but there are some things we don't need to do. We have to be able to draw the line. That's part of leadership and understanding our culture, who we are, where our balance is and where we're going to take this. We're going to do really, really well. We're going to be good stewards of our resources in whatever way we can. When a coach comes to me to sit down to talk about something I think is out of bounds, we'll arm wrestle on it and look at different options.